Peter Gurney, a 'born bomb-disposal officer'
- 23 March 2012
- From the section UK
Twice awarded the George Medal for bravery, as well as an MBE for gallantry, Peter Gurney was one of the world's top bomb disposal officers, who has defused hundreds of bombs and saved many lives during his 40-year career.
"It's almost beyond comprehension to most of us" - that's how the former Prime Minister Sir John Major sums up his thoughts on the risks run by bomb disposal officers like Peter Gurney.
Twenty-one years ago, Mr Gurney - then the Metropolitan Police's chief explosives officer - straddled an IRA mortar bomb which had just been launched at Downing Street and, armed with an adjustable spanner borrowed from the Number 10 boiler room, prised out the weapon's firing pin.
As a one-off act of bravery, Peter Gurney's actions would have earned plenty of plaudits. But the Downing Street job was just one of scores of life-threatening tasks he performed during an extraordinary career which spanned four decades.
'Fascination with explosives'
Over that time, he dealt with improvised explosive devices planted by Britain's home-grown 70s extremists the Angry Brigade, the Palestinian Black September faction and the Provisional IRA.
Ask Mr Gurney how many times he made the "long walk" towards a bomb which might go off at any minute, and he can't tell you. He simply lost count.
If you had to list prerequisites for being a bomb disposal officer, then courage would go without saying. Patience, ingenuity and an ability to keep a cool head under pressure also spring to mind.
But if you talk to Peter Gurney, something else strikes you - he is an enthusiast with a life-long fascination with explosives, ammunition and armaments. If ever a bomb-disposal officer was born, not made, then Peter Gurney seems to fit the bill.
He calls himself an "army brat" - a boy brought up on a military base in the 1930s who became enthralled by the weapons all around.
On one occasion, a local farmer chased the young Gurney and his friends away from his apple orchard, firing pellets from a shotgun at their backs. The Gurney gang took revenge by strapping a military rocket to the farmer's bicycle then launching the machine into the air, where it bounced around, in Peter's vivid description, like "an incandescent kangaroo".
The "army brat" went on to become an ammunition examiner, dealing with the World War II munitions littered around post-war Berlin and North Africa.
When the troubles in Northern Ireland broke out, Peter Gurney completed a short but eventful tour of duty in Belfast. He had acid thrown over him whilst trying to deal with one device, damaged his hearing when a charge went off prematurely during another alert and then, after a bombing at a cafe, survived electrocution by - of all things - a string of sausages. He picked the sausages up without realising they were touching a ruptured mains cable.
In 1973, Peter Gurney left the army and joined the Metropolitan Police's Explosives Office in London.
During the next two decades, he and his colleagues dealt with scores of alerts, on many occasions without the technical back up available now.
Without doubt their principal foes were the bomb-makers of the Provisional IRA, who claimed the lives of two of Peter Gurney's close friends - bomb disposal officers Roger Goad, murdered in August 1975, and Ken Howorth, killed in 1981.
The bomb which killed Ken Howorth exploded inside a fast-food restaurant in Oxford Street.
After the explosion, Peter Gurney made his way into the Wimpy Bar in order to check for secondary devices. He stared down at the mutilated body of his friend. It was a gruesome task but provided vital clues before he headed off to defuse a similar device at a nearby department store.
Peter Gurney habitually blocked out all emotions whilst on a job, but he found it hard to stick to that rule when he came across a fragment of the cardigan Ken Howorth always wore.
On his next job, he says, "I really let emotion take over. I let anger take over, because I was determined to get forensic evidence out of the bomb which hadn't gone off to arrest those who had planted the bomb which killed my friend."
On the outside, Peter Gurney continued to go about his job in what he calls a "cold and impersonal way", but he began to experience nightmares in which he tried repeatedly to stop friends walking towards bombs which then detonated.
The nightmares only stopped when he began to talk more openly about his experiences.
In order to learn lessons from each dangerous job, explosives officers recorded their own commentary whilst dealing with devices. Listening back to the tapes provided important lessons for future alerts.
Peter Gurney retired in the early 1990s, but just before he left the Metropolitan Police he found himself once again at the centre of a major incident, with the IRA's 1991 mortar attack on Downing Street.
Meeting Mr Gurney for the first time in 21 years, Sir John Major calls him and his colleagues the people "who make democracy safe".
Twice decorated for his courage, Peter Gurney explains what it takes. "Bravery is not having no fear," he says. "Anyone who is a bomb disposal officer and says he's not afraid is a bloody fool and he's going to die.
"If you have ever seen the immediate results of a bomb explosion - the damage, debris, people screaming in terror - to be able to stop a bomb going off, not only to stop it going off, but to provide evidence which leads to the arrest of the people concerned gives a great sense of satisfaction which is unmatched."
With those more positive memories to the fore, he sits back and smiles before adding, "I love my work."
It's My Story: The Long Walkwill be broadcast on Monday 26 March at 20:00 BST on BBC Radio 4 or catch-up on iPlayer using the above link.